Calgary restaurants thrive a decade on
In an unforgiving industry where establishments close left and right, a pair of businesses have left a lasting impression, writes Dan Clapson
Standing behind the host stand of his Calgary restaurant, Alloy, Uri Heilik taps periodically on a small touch screen.
"Give me a second and I'll be able to tell you the name of the first customer that came in here when we opened," he says proudly, flipping the pages of his digital calendar back to Nov. 1, 2007, with the flick of a finger.
"There," he says, chuckling, as he points to a name in the 5:30 p.m. time slot.
Since that first person walked in the door 10 years ago, Alloy has been in the rare position of a Calgary restaurant enjoying steady business as a top, fine-dining destination in the city.
It all started when Mr. Heilik first met his business partner, chef Rogelio Herrera, in 2000, at what was then WildWood Grill (now Wurst) while working side-by-side in the kitchen. A few years later, they began collaborating on their own endeavour, a restaurant that would draw on global inspiration for its vibrant and beautifully composed dishes and offer a sophisticated dining experience in a timelessly designed room.
At a time when Calgary's food scene was not experiencing rapid growth, Alloy came out with its guns ablazing. The restaurant garnered plenty of press and boasted a packed dining room, day in and day out.
The restaurant's name, Alloy, is indeed a scientific reference, but it also reflects Mr. Heilik's mentality. The idea of elements fusing together can be applied to his restaurant: Food, atmosphere and service are always more memorable as a trifecta than they are separately.
"I'll never forget that big boom time in Calgary," Mr. Heilik recalls, referring to the huge growth spurt the city's economy experienced in the mid-2000s "Service around town was usually terrible, but every place was packed and I couldn't stand that. I adamantly told my staff that this was not going to be like this forever and our level of service was so important."
He continues, "When money isn't [as free-flowing], people are going to remember the places they go to where they are actually looked after. The recession did happen the next year and our guests stuck with us."
Much like marriage, 10 years of restaurant ownership is a commendable amount of time. Just take a walk through Calgary's streets and you'll be reminded of the good, the bad and the downright confusing restaurants that have come and gone in the past decade.
Some might walk into Without Papers Pizza in Inglewood and have flashbacks of Rebekah Pearse's Nectar, a lovely dessert cafe. Others may stroll by Last Best Brewing and remember that District and Amsterdam Rhino previously served their brews within the same walls. The once nationally acclaimed Rush restaurant sits empty, now merely a faded logo on its still vacant space on 9 Avenue Southwest.
As with Alloy, Leslie Echino's Blink has also managed to thrive for a decade as of this month. Downtown in the heart of Stephen Avenue, Ms. Echino is busy counting bottle after bottle during inventory. No simple task, as her eatery boasts one of the more robust wine offerings in the city.
"My wine list is driven by my travels and contains some of my favourite winemakers from around the world and our food has always reflected that," Ms. Echino explains. "We have always been focused on classic technique in our kitchen, with a focus on organic or local farm-grown ingredients on our menu. That never goes out of style."
Ms. Echino has weathered two economic storms over her 10 years in business at Blink and still maintains a steady clientele, balanced by business crowds and Calgarians looking for contemporary food accompanied by thoughtful service. She is now just weeks away from opening her second restaurant, Bar Annabelle, a whisky and wine bar concept, right next door. "Blink is a big operation and has a lot of moving parts. I think this new concept will benefit from my past decade, for sure," Ms. Echino says.
Ms. Echino and Mr. Heilik agree that remaining relevant in an ever-expanding food scene is definitely a feat – even more so in the current dreary economic climate. Staying the course, they say, has been essential to success.
"Honestly, last year was a tough year for us," Mr. Heilik admits. "The recession of 2008 didn't hurt as much, but this time around, we've seen people unable to host the [special events] they would previously. Staff Christmas parties change from dinners to department lunches, that kind of thing. … Still, we decided not to change what we were doing. We keep our staff, keep doing what we're doing and things will turn around. And they did."
There are few restaurants in Alberta, with Calgary's River Café and Teatro as notable exceptions, that have surpassed the 20 year mark while maintaining their front-of-the-pack positions.
Still, Mr. Heilik is as passionate and determined as ever.
"If the people want it, we'll keep doing it," he says. "It would feel really amazing to hit that 20 year mark."
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